ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – While Peyton Manning was off the charts in the first half of the season, Denver's defense went from dominant to dismal without Von Miller, Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard.
Two of the three are back and so is Jack Del Rio's smile.
Manning's 29 TD throws and nearly 3,000 yards passing over the first half of the season have covered up many of the Broncos' blemishes.
Not in Del Rio's eyes.
He had to make do with makeshift lineups and all too often found himself chewing out — or, as Del Rio likes to say, "encouraging" — his players coming off the field after abysmal coverages or boneheaded blunders.
Whether it was Danny Trevathan dropping a pick-6 at the goal line in the opener against Baltimore in his first NFL start or Bailey blowing coverage on an easy touchdown toss at Indianapolis in his 211th career start, exasperation enveloped Del Rio.
Before pumping the breaks heading into the bye this week, the Broncos (7-1) had gone from one of the best defenses in the league last year to one of the worst, ranking dead last against the pass until Sunday, when they tormented Robert Griffin III, who threw for just 132 yards and ran for only 7 more.
It was just the kind of performance this defense needed so the players — and Del Rio — could feel good about themselves as they head into their four-day weekend furlough before a brutal November schedule in which they'll face AFC West leader Kansas City twice and also trek to San Diego and New England.
"We have too much talent in here to be last in the league in pass defense and we really took ownership of that," cornerback Chris Harris said. "And we don't want to be the group that lets this team fall short of our goals."
Harris had one of Denver's five takeaways Sunday when the Broncos knocked down RG3 18 times, sending him to the sideline in the fourth quarter and then harassing his replacement, Kirk Cousins, into throwing two interceptions, one of which Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie returned 75 yards for the score.
Rodgers-Cromartie started high-stepping at midfield, and while Del Rio could have done without the showboating, it was the first defensive score of the year, so a little exuberance could be excused.
"I hadn't had one in my hands in a long time so it was all the emotion and the feelings going with it," Rodgers-Cromartie said.
Although Bailey was sidelined again after aggravating his sprained left foot that has kept him out of all but six quarters this season, that game marked the return of Woodyard, Denver's middle linebacker who had missed 2½ games with a shoulder stinger.
And it was Miller's second game back from his six-game suspension. After knocking off the rust a week earlier, Miller was back to being his disruptive self, collecting a sack and forcing a fumble.
"I think we haven't really been whole the whole season defensively," coach John Fox said. "I think our guys have hung in there, continued to work hard. I think before (Sunday), I felt we were much more capable than what we had put on tape up to that point. They responded. We challenged them hard and coached them hard, they practiced hard and I think they saw the fruits of that."
The Broncos are scoring 42.9 points a game thanks to a turbo-charged offense led by Manning's 2,919 yards passing — a record through eight games — but they know championships are built on defense even in this age of aerial fireworks.
Denver, which inched up to 24th in the overall defensive rankings this week, is allowing 27.25 points a game. Only four teams are allowing more — the Vikings, Giants, Redskins and Jaguars — and their combined record is 5-25.
Harris promises that scoring average will plummet, especially when Bailey gets healthy — he hopes to return against San Diego next week.
"We're 7-1 and we haven't played our best yet," Harris said.
Even with Manning having a monster year, Denver's defense intends to carry its weight over the second half.
"I know we can definitely get better," Miller said. "I don't think that we've remotely scratched the surface of what we can be."
Notes: Manning didn't practice Tuesday but No. 18 was on the field hitting the blocking sleds. That was TE Jacob Tamme, who donned Manning's number in a jersey swap initiated by Woodyard. "It was just a fun way to lighten it up a little bit while getting some work done," Tamme said. ... Attending practice was actor Taylor Kitsch, who played Tim Riggins on "Friday Night Lights" and stars in the upcoming action drama "Lone Survivor."
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